Thursday, April 23, 2009

Michela's Herb Patch, Colle Val D'Elsa and More: Being the 160th issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Greetings! This is a bit late, because I was out for a week at Vinitaly, the major Italian wine trade show, and then we had Easter, with all the preparations and activities. Speaking of which, I trust all who celebrated the holidays had pleasant Easters and Passovers.

Returning to Vinitaly, it was more subdued than it has been in past years, and a number of winemakers told me that orders were off, with not as many people placing orders, and those who did ordering significantly less than they did last year, especially of the more expensive wines. Also, the rush of restaurant and other food industry people that usually occurs on Monday, the last day of the show, was much less intense than normal, to the point that a number of people told me they could have packed up and headed home early without loss. With any luck, next year will be more profitable.

I of course took full advantage of the show to taste until late Monday afternoon; the highlights I will be writing about include Montefalco, which has a lot more than Sagrantino to offer, Ortrugo, a white from the Ortrugo grape varietal in the Colli Piacentini, which had almost disappeared but is now being planted anew, and Romagna's vini della Sabbia, which are produced in the sandy coastal zone between the mouths of the Po and Rubicon Rivers, in part from vines that are on native root stock because the Phylloxera bug doesn't like sand and therefore avoids the area. The other thing that really impressed me at Vinitaly was a Badia a Coltibuono vertical going back to the 60s, which opened a door onto a very different world. Beautiful wines, too.

I have already begun to post notes from Vinitaly on the IWR, and have, so far, discussed Fattoria di Lucignano, a very nice, very traditional Chianti Colli Fiorentini and Tedeschi, whose Valpolicella is as impressive as ever. Isole e Olena (and the wines they make in Piemonte) I instead tasted at Isole, because Paolo De Marchi was mobbed at Vinitaly.

The latest things on Italian food are instead a collection of Italian steak recipes, a simple, tasty beef and pork stew from Adriana Begali, and Michela's healthy legume-based Minestrone

The Michela in question is Michela Cariolaro, who with her husband Carlo Sittizia runs Palazzetto Ardi, an agriturismo not far from Gambellara, mid-way between Vicenza and Verona. Michela and Carlo farm organically, and as one might expect, Michela, who is a trained chef, makes extensive use of things from the fields. I usually visit them the day after Vinitaly, and generally end up spending hours in the kitchen taking notes and photos; this time I also found myself crawling about outside squinting at what's growing now.

Michela began by pointing out Silene Inflata, which is called Sculpit in English. In the Vicentino it's also known as Schioppettino (crackler) because it develops white blossoms farm kids enjoy crackling. Its flavor is a cross between artichokes and spinach, and one eats the leaves and budding tips, both raw and cooked.

She next steered me to a Tarasacco, or dandelion plant. Until March, one can eat the tiny freshly sprouted leaves raw in salads, or with cubes of polenta and browned pancetta. Larger leaves, before the plants blossom, can be scalded and rubbed with lard or garlic as a cooked vegetable. The other thing one can do with a dandelion is harvest the flower buds when they're still buttons close to the ground, i.e. before they begin to rise up on stocks. They're called capperi di tarasacco (tarasacco capers) and are treated like capers -- either salted, or blanched in vinegar and then pickled in the vinegar. Michela also uses them as she would capers, to flavor dishes.

She next pointed out nettles; she uses the freshly sprouted smaller, tenderer leaves, picking them while wearing gloves and blanching them before using them -- they're a nice addition to soups, pasta fillings (ricotta and nettles instead of ricotta and spinach), and are also nice in a frittata (nettle frittata instead of spinach frittata). If the prospect of preparing nettles seems daunting, Kari Diehl shows how in a nicely illustrated article.

After nettles we looked at Parietaria, which derives its Italian name from the fact that it grows on walls (pareti); its English names include pellitory of the wall and lichwort, and though it is a member of the nettle family it doesn't sting. The leaves are abrasive and finely haired, however, and because of this, farmers used to use large plants to clean bottles and demijohns. One can eat the smaller plants, however, using them as one might sage (with butter) to flavor stuffed pasta, and also in meatless pasta fillings. Michela notes that paretaria is extremely rich in iron, more than spinach.

The last thing we looked at was Chenopodio, Chenopodium album, which is called fat-hen and white goose foot, among other things, in English. It's very rich in iron, and can substitute for spinach when newly sprouted. After a couple of months, however, it becomes several feet tall and its stem becomes as tough as a thick wire, while the leaves become coated with a white, abrasive powder; at this point itìs perfect for cleaning bottles.

This was just a sampling -- we didn't look at obvious things such as rosemary or sage -- and we then returned to the kitchen, where she finished making her minestrone.

What does this all mean? Most of these herbs are defined erbacce -- weeds -- in the Italian edition of Wikipedia, and all seemed to be growing spontaneously; if you have access to a field that hasn't been treated with chemicals you'll likely find similar richness, though if you're not familiar with the plants I would pick up a good herb guide in a bookshop and also ask a local gardener for advice.

Colle Val D'Elsa
Moving in a very different direction, an itinerary dedicated to Colle Val D'Elsa, which looks, if one drives past it on the Florence-Siena highway, like just another dingy industrial town. But there's quite a bit more than meets the eye. This itinerary assumes you are coming from Volterra:

After you have had breakfast, gather your things and leave Volterra, following the signs for Colle Val'D'elsa and Siena. Very pretty scenery, and you'll understand where the Renaissance Masters got their inspiration. After about 20 km you will reach the imposing bulk of Colle's Porta Nuova. Bear left.

Assuming that it is a weekday and you made an appointment, your first stop will be the Vilca glassworks, which also provides interesting insights into Colle's history.

During the Roman period the residents had lived down in the valley, but withdrew to the safety of the heights with the arrival of the Dark Ages. In the 10th century the area belonged to the Aldobrandeschi family, which built a castle on the hilltop. Due to its position dominating the Val D'Elsa it was highly strategic real estate; Florence and Siena skirmished over it repeatedly, until the residents put themselves in the hands of the Florentines in 1107. The Florentines repaid their trust by fortifying the entire town. Considering how perilous times were this must have been a great relief. Florence also changed the town's name from Piticcino to Castrum Collis, which eventually became Colle.

Thus was born the first nucleus of Colle, perched on top of the hill. In the meantime, the surrounding territory was evolving: In the 1150s the Sienese and other local nobles attempted to limit Florence's growing power by laying out an alternate route for the Via Franchigena, the pilgrimage route to Rome, that avoided Florentine territory. Colle was equidistant from the new and old routes; its strategic importance increased, and as a result so did its population, an increase also stimulated by the edicts adopted in 1173 that gave settlers land and other privileges. During this period Colle declared itself a Free Commune, and in 1181 extended the city walls to include Borgo dei Franchi, a hamlet down the hill by the river. Free did not mean alone, and Colle's governors mixed their blood with that of the Florentine dignitaries who came to watch construction begin, then mixed the blood with the mortar used in the wall, thus cementing a perpetual alliance.

Colle continued to grow, and in the following century the Mendicant Orders arrived, the Franciscans building their convent on the next hill over form the town and connecting it to the town gate via a causeway, while the Augustines took over and expanded an old parish church down on the valley floor. In the meantime industry flowered. Wool played an important part in the economy, and the river was transformed into a series of channels that made it possible to build paper mills. Money flowed in and people built; in the late 1200s the walls were extended a third time, in the direction of Volterra.

In 1338 Florence took direct control of Colle. Unlike many other towns that declined following their loss of independence, Colle grew more, expanding the paper mills, working iron, establishing glassworks, and introducing one of Italy's first printing presses, in 1478. Of the various industries, glass working was perhaps the most successful: in 1577 Cosimo I declared that no "foreign glass" was to be used within his dominions.

During this period things weren't all peace and growth, of course. Siena and Florence fought constantly. And Florence had other enemies as well; in 1478 the Armies of the Pope besieged Colle. Unsuccessfully, and as a result the Colligiani were granted Florentine citizenship after peace was negotiated.

Returning to glass, though Colle is now the primary producer of Italian lead crystal, the tradition only goes back to the mid-1800s. It was begun by a French family, the Mathis, which was drawn to the area by the ready supply of the raw materials. They employed only French workmen, at great cost, and foundered commercially; in the late 1800s they were bought out by a German named Schmid, who trained local workers to man the furnaces and produce the pieces.

Though most of the modern factories are industrial and closed to the public, the Vilca factory continues to do things by hand; the work day begins in the afternoon, when the crucibles are filled with the raw materials and the furnaces are fired up to make the crystal, which is kept at a temperature of about 1,000 C throughout the night. The master glass blowers arrive at 5 in the morning and work through until 1 in the afternoon, two producing stemware (goblets, glasses and other vessels), and the third doing sculptures; they're helped by a bevy of assistants, some who see to primary shaping, and others who make sure the masters have a steady supply of glass and the other things they might need. It's a hot, noisy, carefully orchestrated dance that's fascinating to watch. Once blown the pieces are annealed for 5 hours, lest they crack from over-rapid cooling, and are then ground to remove imperfections and rough spots.

To reach Vilca, turn right at the Porta Nuova parking lot and enter Colle Alta through Via della Porta Vecchia, going by an imposing round bastion built to defend the walls, a Renaissance pillbox, as it were. The road goes down the hill; bear right on Via XX Settembre. You'll pass through the Porta Guelfa, one of the few surviving 13th century gates, and should then follow the signs for Grosseto. It's about 2 km, and Vilca is on the right, 300 m after the bridge over the Elsa River. The tour takes about an hour, and ends with a visit to the showroom. They don't do much in the way of colored crystal, but do have a strikingly beautiful line of decorative pieces that are aswirl with gold dust.

It will by now likely be late morning. Return towards Colle and park in Piazza Arnolfo. Exit the square to the left of the station on Via Traversa Stazione, turn right onto Via Spugna, and follow it past a rather messy intersection to where it narrows considerably, and stops by a tiny tenth century church, S. Maria a Spugna. If you look down at the river from here you can see traces of the medieval channels, and also, on the far bank, a pylon from a bridge designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, the renowned architect who also began Florence's Santa Maria Novella. It was swept away by a flood in 1806, but drawings show it as a daring arched span that must have been quite pretty. Return towards the center of town, cross Piazza Arnolfo, and follow Via Dei Fossi to Piazza Sant'Agostino. The uncompleted façade is Sienese Gothic (the bell tower was added in 1900), while the interior, was reworked by Antonio da Sangallo the elder. It has a number of pleasant late 16th century paintings, and it's odd to see some of them leaned against a wall in the transept. Exit the square to the right for a better look at Porta Guelfa.

At this point you may be thinking about lunch. Gambero Rosso's Restaurant Guide speaks highly of the Ristorante Arnolfo in Piazza Santa Caterina (Colle Alta; Tel 0577 920 549, closed Tuesdays), but also notes that it's expensive. For a pleasant, reasonably priced meal, try the Osteria La Ghiotta, on Via Piave del Piano, just off from Sant'Agostino (Tel 0577 920 231, closed Sundays). Assuming you eat at the Osteria, retrieve your car and drive through town, turning left at the sign for Volterra.

The road follows the hillside flanking Colle Alta and offers an excellent view of the hilltop town. Follow it to the Porta Nuova parking lot, and then walk up the hill to the imposing Porta Nuova, , built in the late 1400s by Antonio da Sangallo to replace the gate damaged in the siege of 1478.

Colle's homes and palaces provide further evidence that the town remained prosperous after coming under Florentine sway, rather than become a provincial backwater: many are built in High Renaissance style, and this means that their owners could still afford to build in the 1500s (think, by way of comparison, of the almost exclusively mediaeval architecture of Certaldo or San Gimignano). Follow Via Gracco del Secco down the hill, past the Ospedale di San Lorenzo, founded by Fulvio Usimbardi in the 16th century. Facing it is the Conservatorio di San Pietro, which trained generations of students. It was founded in 1610 by Pietro Usimbardi, who was Bishop of Arezzo at the time, and built following plans by Giorgio Vasari. The complex, which has two pretty cloisters, also has some elegant Florentine Baroque works, including a painting by Pietro Dandini over the altar.

Continue down the street to Piazza Santa Caterina, a pretty square with a modern fountain. The church, which dates to the XV century, is simple but pleasant. From here bear left onto Via Campana; the elegant brickwork building to the left with stone moldings and Medici coat of arms is Palazzo Renieri e Portigiani, now the town hall.

Piticcino, the original nucleus of the town that was rebaptized Castrum Collis in 1107, is at the other end of the bridge. Palazzo Campana, which doubles as an extraordinarily elegant gate, was built in 1539 by Giuliano di Baccio d'Agnolo for a man who, among other things, dealt with antiquities, and asked that the design include Etruscan elements. Pass through the archway and follow Via del Castello to Piazza del Duomo.

The first thing you will see is the Palazzo Pretorio, the Renaissance seat of government, which was recently transformed into a very interesting archaeological museum. The ground floor has several rooms dedicated to Medieval and Renaissance Colle, with models by a local artist of landmarks, including Arnolfo's bridge, and a number of decorative architectural elements. There are also the town jail cells, which were used until well into this century: One graffito, signed W L'Anarchia (Long Live Anarchy), warns Communists, Socialists and Republicans to beware of those "who grow fat in the shadow of the flag." An obvious reference to the Fascists, and one of the custodians says it was likely written by someone who was put in the clink to keep him from making trouble during the visit of a Fascist dignitary (this was common practice).

The second floor is equally interesting, with a beautiful collection of Etruscan artifacts from nearby tombs that are very well laid out; in particular there's the skull of a young woman whose gold earring is still in place, and a funerary urn that has a roof tile fitted over the sculpture of the couple whose ashes are within. The frescos on the walls are instead a pleasant surprise. Nobody knew about them when the renovations necessary to house the museum began; once they were discovered, after much of the work was done, what remained was restored, and now one can enjoy examining them from close up. Museum hours: Weekdays 5-7 PM and Sundays & holidays 10-12 AM as well; in winter weekdays 3:30-5:30 PM and Sundays & holidays 10-12 as well; closed Mondays.

The Duomo, next door, was built in 1603 to celebrate Colle's erection to a bishopric, and you can see some of the Romanesque elements of the earlier Sant'Alberto it replaced in the walls, most notably a series of arches. The interior is rather cavernous, but has a number of pleasant 17th century artworks. Continue along Via del Castello; at this point you are entering the medieval section of town, and the atmosphere is very different. After about 100 yards you will come to the Palazzo dei Priori, the seat of the Mediaeval Government, which hosts the showrooms of Colle's Consorzio del Cristallo on the ground floor, and has, upstairs, the Museo Civico e D'Arte Sacra, with a number of works from local country churches, funerary urns, and a collection of silver for celebrating communion dating to the VI century. Museum Hours: April 1 - Oct 1 Mon-Sun 10-12, 4-7; in winter Sat-Sun 10-12, 3:30-6:30.

When you have finished exploring the museum, continue down Via del Castello. The tall tower home with the plaque was home to Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect who built the bridge over the Elsa and designed Florence's Duomo. Continue on down to the end of the street, which opens out onto a large battlement that offers a beautiful view over the valley. To return, take via Muro Lungo, which offers more pretty views over the valley, and opens into Via Delle Romite. Turn left, and right at the second side street, towards Piazza del Duomo. Just as you enter Piazza del Duomo you will see, to your left, a vaulted street appropriately called Via delle Volte. More than a hundred yards of vaulting, and the feeling is unique. It will lead you back to Palazzo Campana and the gate to the newer part of town.

Places to stay:
Colle has a number of hotels. If you'd like to stay in Colle Alta, there's the Hotel Arnolfo in Via Campana 8; tel 0577 922020, Fax 0577 922324

Things to see and do:
During the first three weekends of September Colle hosts the Mostra del Cristallo, a show dedicated to the town's crystal production, with roundtables dedicated to the foods and wines that will go best with the wares.
For more information check Colle's Rete Civica, or, for crystal,

I had planned to finish with a couple of recipes, but this is quite long enough. This time's proverb is from the Veneto: No tor mai consegi da zent andada in malora - Never accept advice from those who have gone bad.

Until next time,

Kyle Phillips
Editor, The Italian Wine Review
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